“Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities” by James Turner. (Princeton Univ.)


The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities

By James Turner

Princeton Univ. 550 pp. $35

What do such disparate fields as linguistics, archaeology, religion, anthropology, classics and English literature have in common? Each commands its own academic department; each abounds in specialties and sub-specialties, professional societies, conferences and journals. (Not to mention junior faculty straining for tenure.) If anything else unites these disciplines, it’s the tag “humanities” — and the frequent rumor that they’re in crisis.

That’s not all they share, Notre Dame professor James Turner reveals in his deft intellectual history. These disciplines, and many more, sprang from the same scholarly impulse: philology, defined broadly as a penchant for close reading of texts, for discerning patterns and relationships across languages and cultures and for illuminating the historical milieu that produces a work of art or literature.

What became of this zest? Philology literally means, after all, “love of words” or “love of learning.” How did it survive from antiquity to the mid-1800s, morph into the modern humanities, and why, according to Turner, has the practice of philology gone “underground” in our day?

For a measure of how things have changed, take Charles Eliot Norton, “the most prolific begetter of the humanities” in 19th-century American higher education. Norton “not only edited Donne but also published serious research on Dante, medieval architecture, art history, and classical archaeology,” Turner notes. “He died in 1908, among the last of his kind.” Today, Turner submits, “if you are labeled ‘assistant professor of art history,’ a study of medieval church architecture might get you tenure. Translating Dante’s Divine Comedy or editing John Donne’s poems will get you a place in the line at your local unemployment office.” The comment hardly inspires confidence in slogans about multidisciplinary learning on college campuses.

Yet Turner’s account glories in recalling such polymaths from oblivion. Their examples (overwhelmingly male) enliven these pages. One could start with Petrarch, best remembered for his sonnets to Laura, but who, we learn, “owned more Roman literature than any other private person, some of it his own discoveries,” including lost letters and speeches by Cicero and a rare copy of Propertius’s poems.

Petrarch was one of several Italian humanists ushering in the Renaissance. The new city-states carving up the northern Italian peninsula favored scribes and administrators schooled in Latin grammar and rhetoric. Petrarch, meanwhile, used these credentials to gain employment as a traveling papal clerk. At one point, his textual analysis helped to invalidate an “ ‘ancient Roman’ document” that would have thwarted Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor.

This was in 1355. More than three centuries later, British philologist Richard Bentley accomplished a similar feat, proving the fraudulence of letters purportedly from Phalaris, “a semilegendary tyrant of Syracuse in the sixth century BCE, with the winsome habit of roasting enemies in a hollow bronze bull.” In his spare time, Bentley also produced “a rich, if helter-skelter, study of vanished Greek drama,” recovering along the way “a lost rule of poetic meter.” He edited Horace and Terence and restored an elided Greek consonant to manuscripts of epic poetry, thus accounting for previously “puzzling gaps in Homer’s meter.” Bentley also turned his prodigious learning to delivering a series of lectures endowed to discredit every religion except Christianity.

By Bentley’s time, Britain had become a haven for philology, as political and religious troubles drove the new scholarship out of continental Europe. As the island nation’s influence spread through global conquests, so did its interest in the languages and literatures of other peoples. In 1767, Benjamin Kennicott, a biblical scholar, lobbied to create the first professorship of Persian at Oxford. His reasoning betrayed a strange brew of pragmatism and sentimentality. How but by learning Persian, he argued, could the East India Company rule a people who used the language for commerce and diplomacy? And yet Kennicott also sought to discover what he called “the first seeds” of human knowledge, as represented by “the Asiaticks.” Study of their languages, he wrote, might lead to “the first source from which the whole race of mankind derive their origin.”

Bentley’s prophecy bore partial fruit in the work of Sir William Jones, known in his day as “Persian” Jones or “Oriental” Jones. When, in 1783, he arrived in India to take a Calcutta judgship, Jones commanded 11 ancient and modern languages, and had a smattering of “about fifteen others.” Jones hypothesized that there once existed a single, ancestral language, which scholars since have dubbed Proto-Indo-European. The daring of this concept had huge implications for philologists. Grammarians “no longer analyzed only the histories of individual languages or closely related ones, seen in isolation,” Turner explains. “They now also began to contrast grammatical and lexical change over time in quite diverse languages believed to be related over vast spans of time and space.” (A similar, though apparently unaffiliated, movement captivated the New World. Even Thomas Jefferson aspired to trace the origins of Native Americans by comparing the languages of their tribes.)

Jones won the praise of Romantic thinkers in Germany, where his hunch was verified through rigorous methods amounting to science. As German nationalist motives mingled with scholarly zeal, this line of speculation had its share of unhappy, if unintended, consequences. Jones could not have guessed the fate of the Sanskrit word “Aryan” when he published it to the West. For that matter, philology often seems to have traveled under the banner of nationalism, imperialism or what we would now call religious bigotry.

Still, as “Philology” illustrates, more generous spirits — call them multidisciplinary research and learning — have always presided over the pursuit of the humanities. Even in earlier guises, the humanities never had it easy. Then as now, they had to contend with turbulent times and changing social and political pressures. But given all that philology has unearthed, we should honor its legacy, as Turner does in his definitive study.

Iyengar directs the Office of Research & Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Michael Dirda is on vacation.